For the past few weeks, the smooth, ghostly and haunting face of Zhang Xiaogang's "Bloodline Series: Comrade No. 120" (1998) has been almost as ubiquitous in contemporary-art circles as, say, an Andy Warhol "Marilyn" or a Damien Hirst pickled shark. Gracing the cover of the catalog for Sotheby's recent New York auction of contemporary Asian art, the discreetly blemished portrait of a young party functionary in a Mao suit also found its way onto the pages of practically every periodical that so much as mentioned the sale. Which, by the way, raked in $13.2 million (against a presale estimate of $8 million). "Comrade No. 120" brought the gavel down at just under $1 million, more than three times the auctioneer's estimate. These sales are the latest proof that Chinese contemporary art is hot, hot, hot, and the latest must-have accessory for the cutting-edge elite.
Why? Partly it's a function of China's growing liberalization, which has allowed visual artists in particular greater freedom of expression. "Artists are pretty much given carte blanche to do what they like; the written word is more controlled," says Chang Tsong Zung, owner of the Hanart Gallery in Hong Kong, a city now considered an essential "third leg" of the contemporary-art world, after New York and London. The work itself is graphically bold and finely executed; many of the artists have been superbly trained in draftsmanship. Others have plunged into video installations and similarly nontraditional forms of work, which get a lot of play in today's art world. In fact, some Chinese artists push the envelope a bit beyond what's tolerated in the West. "Ruan" by Xiao You, for example, consists of the head of a real human fetus with sewn-on rabbit eyes and the body of a bird. While not all Chinese artists go that far, they are valued as "the main commentators on the state of contemporary China," says Chang.
Such edginess has brought Chinese artists notice far beyond the mainland and Hong Kong. Barbara Pollock, who covers the field for the magazine Art & Auction, says, "Major art collectors outside China are now adding artists like Xu Bing, Cai Guo Qiang, Zhang Huan, Yang Fudong and Zhang Xiaogang to their collections as they would any other artists with international reputations." At the moment, contemporary Chinese art is still comparatively inexpensive, with work by the top two dozen names priced at about one tenth of what their American and European counterparts bring in. Below that level, prices drop to the point that hip young professionals on the mainland who've already earned enough to buy a house and a car can now afford to look for contemporary paintings to put on their walls. "The two markets have collided," says Pollock, "in a perfect storm."
Pitfalls still exist. The communist government can get randomly testy, as it did last month in the Dashanzi art district in Beijing, commanding three galleries to remove artwork it deemed politically subversive. At the other end of the spectrum, collectors both inside and outside China are buying so fast and indiscriminately that skyrocketing prices are tempting many artists to go for the gold by retreating into formula instead of continuing to take esthetic chances. The major Chinese collectors tend to wait for cues from their Western brethren, then buy artists who've gotten famous abroad. In the end, though, it may be artists from other countries who benefit the most from the boom. After all, says Pollock, the young bourgeois inside China are poised to become "the largest group of collectors ever to enter the contemporary market." And if current trends continue, they'll be keen on spending their riches on the next hot artist, wherever he or she comes from.